For parents, how to educate their children is one of the most nerve-wracking decisions they will make. There are so many choices, it can make your head spin: public school, private school, homeschool! How do you know which one is right for your family? It doesn’t help matters, either, that how you educate your children has become fodder for endless mommy wars, adding even more stress to the situation.
In our family, it’s complicated. I have five children, three of whom attend three different schools in two different counties. One attends a public school in Duval County, another a public school in Clay County, and finally, another in a Catholic school in Clay County. My children are all in ESE programs, thus the spread, but when they’re old enough, I’m hoping they’ll all be attending the same faith-based school: Annunciation, located in Middleburg.
Choosing a faith-based school was a difficult decision to make. The biggest issue was the cost: tuition, fees, uniforms. Thankfully, Florida has several school-choice options, and we are able to take advantage of the McKay Scholarship, which makes attending Annunciation affordable. Annunciation is also, in our experience, basically one large and very generous family. When we first started sending Ben last year, we had to get uniforms. We got a huge pile of gym uniforms for free from another parent, and we were able to get most of his other uniforms very inexpensively from the school itself — we’re talking less than $20!
We’re also very fortunate to be able to continue using Ben’s IEP at Annunciation, where the faculty and staff have been amazingly helpful and eager to do anything it takes to see their kids improve. Ben gets speech therapy, but he also has teachers and staff who go the extra mile to help him succeed, far beyond anything I could have expected. This even includes the principal, who makes it a point to know not only all of her students, but all of their families as well. At the beginning of Ben’s first year, she asked for a family picture of all of us together, with our names, so she would know who all of her new students were, and all of their family members. And she has also made it a point to meet with me personally, along with Ben’s teacher, to make sure the school is doing all it can be to help him do well academically, socially, and emotionally. The level of personal care Annunciation has shown towards our family has truly touched my heart, and it’s not just our family; there have been several times over our past two years at the school that, unfortunately, some of our families have been touched by tragedy or misfortune. But the Annunciation family has come together each time to lift these families up and support them, through donations of time, goods, and money, as well as prayer and friendship.
While it is not a requirement for students attending Annunciation to be Catholic, it is still important for the school to live out our Catholic values, which includes helping the less fortunate. So throughout the year, the school does things like collect food for local food pantries, and participate in various charitable programs. A recent charity they participated in was the Box of Joy, with the goal of filling 200 shoeboxes with toiletries, school supplies, small toys, and religious articles, which would then be sent to children in developing countries like Haiti, Ecuador, and Rwanda.
We also have really enjoyed the extracurricular activities that are available, even for the youngest kids, like Ben! Annunciation has the Run/Walk Club for kids of all ages, dance, the Young Rembrandts Art Club, Bricks 4 Kidz, and the yearly Jog-A-Thon. For older kids, there are athletics such as cross country, basketball, soccer, and baseball, as well as other after school activities like chess club, robotics, choir, and band. There are also tons of events throughout the year to allow families to be involved, from Muffins with Moms and Donuts with Dads, to our movie nights and Christmas parties, where the whole family is invited. Families are also welcome to attend Mass each Thursday with their students if they so choose, or visit to have lunch with them at the school pavilion.
Our family has also been incredibly impressed with the academics offered at Annunciation. In addition to the typical elementary and middle school curriculum, Annunciation has numerous enrichment classes that every student participates in: religious education, music, art, Spanish, science, and technology. This goes above and beyond just sitting in a class and reading a book; the subjects become truly immersive. In art, for example, all grades are about to begin learning about Malbork Castle, located in Malbork, Poland — the hometown of our pastor, Father Andy! Malbork Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they will be learning about the history, architecture, stained glass, sculptures, wall paintings, and more. Throughout the year, they’ve also been participating in different projects, like using recycled magazines to make bowls, and studying a different artist each week, ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright to Vincent Van Gogh.
But perhaps the most exciting academic offering at Annunciation is their STEM program. In 2016, Annunciation was chosen as one of only nine schools in the country to participate in the Notre Dame STEM Fellowship, making them one of a small handful of schools overall. Angela Lhotka, Annunciation’s STEM fellow, traveled to Notre Dame University over the summer where she was able to receive advice and professional development on how best to provide the highest quality STEM education to students. While the fellowship is geared towards middle school, Annunciation has integrated it through all levels, and thanks to the fellowship, STEM has become fun for our students. For older kids, experiments and projects have ranged from evaluating chocolate chip cookies to designing roller coasters. After finishing their roller coaster project, in which they actually engineered 3D models of roller coasters, the students got to give business plan presentations to Universal Studios professionals! Even in pre-K, kids are getting involved in STEM; for example, they integrated STEM into Jack and the Beanstalk, building “beanstalks” using cut up pool noodles and shaving cream. Last year, kindergarteners got to experience STEM firsthand through Kite Day, where they got to have fun flying a kite, but also learning all about STEM: science, through what forces allow the kite to fly; technology, in examining how the kite is constructed; engineering, in studying what affects the flight of the kite, and why they have tails; and finally, math, through experimenting with different string lengths.
For our family, Annunciation has been a wonderful place to call our academic home. It combines everything we could possibly want in a school: great academics, a warm and loving staff, Catholic values, and a generous, family-like atmosphere. We love our faith-based school, and couldn’t imagine sending our children anywhere else.